Five things we learned at the NYC Porn Film Festival

nyc porn film festival

There was a lot to learn. All photos by Kelly Murphy

“I hope this isn’t too academic,” is how Rutgers Director of Women’s and Gender Studies, Whitney Strub, opened his presentation Sunday afternoon at the first NYC Porn Film Festival. No one objected.

The mission of this Pornhub-backed festival reads, “We aim to give credit to adult film as a significant and socially/culturally relevant art form.” Before the event, I rolled my eyes at this, assuming it was yet another Brooklyn-y attempt to add a layer of pretension to an otherwise bawdy topic. I was wrong. Of the dozens of attendees I talked to at Secret Project Robot this weekend, the resounding answer to why they paid $69 for a ticket was, “I like porn!,” followed by a reasoned argument for why they think it’s of societal importance:

“In general, there’s becoming less of a boundary of what constitutes art and what constitutes porn. I support anything that expedites that transition.”

“Sex positivity! But seriously. Fuck negativity, this is a part of every human experience.”

“I’m here to see Barbara Hammer because there wouldn’t be a way to talk about lesbian sex without her.”

“I think it’s beautiful.”

“It’s not even about sex. It’s about how we interact with each other on a grander scale.”

“There’s so much to learn [giggles].”

And indeed there was, through a series of talks curated by artist Richard John Jones, screenings of archived period pieces, and contemporary amateur films that told a story of where we were and where we are now. Read on for our five takeaways from what will hopefully become an annual event.

Sex is political. 

“Really they should call this the Post-Porn Fest,” said 75-year-old Barbara Hammer, pioneer of lesbian erotic film in the early 70s. She was speaking to the way each panel discussion and film became about the reaction to porn, rather than the porn itself. Of her own work, she said, “My films weren’t made to elicit sexual desire, they were made to empower the body.” The idea that sex is political (duh) became the weekend’s refrain, weaving its way through conversations about gender, censorship, Republicans vs. Democrats, and old people having sex.

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On Saturday afternoon, Stop Patriarchy held a protest called, “End Pornography and Patriarchy: The Enslavement and Degradation of Women.” The reaction from female members of the crowd to protestors’ questions about their self-worth? Laughter and apathy. The notion that women actually feel liberated by many forms of pornography was underscored by the fact that half the speakers at the festival were women. Former advertising mogul Cindy Gallop’s Friday night opening keynote, “How to Make Money Out of Porn: Redesigning the Industry Business Model,” spoke directly to the future of porn as a vehicle for female empowerment. Despite their personal views, every panelist emphasized the need for a continuing public discourse about sex in all forms.

The category of pornography was actually created by archivists.

The New York Public Library uses neither the Dewey Decimal System nor the Library of Congress system of classification. Within NYPL’s categorization, ***, or “triple star,” historically demarks any work that was considered dangerous and thus subject to theft. Lewd publications, from romance novels to nudie mags, fell squarely into this category, and so the subcategory of pornography was born out of necessity as a way to categorize archival materials. “There’s a lot more disciplining of porn in the 21st century than a lot of us realize,” said Strub of Rutgers. “There’s a whole lost sexual world that is only accessible through the archives.

If you’re wondering where, exactly, these archives are, you can find old microfilms at NYU’s Fales Library & Special Collections in Washington Square, prints and paintings at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art on Wooster Street, and old experimental film projects at regular Dirty Looks NYC screenings.

Barbara Hammer talks about doin' it

Barbara Hammer talks about doin’ it

Talking about sex doesn’t actually kill the mood. 

2014 saw the publication by Routledge of the first-ever Porn Studies journal. Romance novels, the most read genre of books around the world, are now frequently the subject of book club discussions and college courses. The NYC Porn Film Festival featured the first thematic talks series at an event of this nature, which curator Richard John Jones joked is, “either a milestone, or proof that talking about sex kind of kills the mood.” As it turns out, the audience was very excited to talk about sex and their experiences with it. But why?

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Dirty Looks NYC’s Karl McCool said of the art film organization, “We don’t often show porn, but when we do, we get a huge turnout. I think that, and the existence of a festival like this, speak to the fact that there’s still an interest in having a collective film viewing experience of this kind of work.” Branden Wallace, Collections Manager of the Leslie Lohman Museum, agreed that, “Porn is more democratized now. You have it on your phone. And yet it’s still titillating because of social restraints.” It seems that what’s lost in the digitization of porn is the social interaction of sitting in a theater with a reel and an actual human presence next to you.

You can build a professional career looking at gay porn ads. 

Perhaps the, ahem, climax of our “how’d you get that cool job” series would be Karl McCool’s gig as a moving image archivist. That title is potentially the driest possible way to describe days filled poring through porn magazines and digging through archives for early queer films to reconstruct a narrative about a time in our city’s recent history when porn was considered very, very chic.

There’s a difference between porn and erotica.

Part of what McCool has found in his research is that throughout the past century, the line between an art magazine and a porn magazine has always been very thin. Yet the distinction is very important. More formally, the distinction between porn and erotica takes on a hefty burden in the art community not just in terms of perception, but in terms of access and legal rights. Filmmaker Barbara Hammer put it most clearly: “Porn has a purpose and a function. Erotica does not.”

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This purpose, of course, is to make the reader or viewer feel aroused. Erotica, on the other hand, has a broader-ranging goal—to provoke conversation or an emotional, rather than strictly biological, reaction. As Wallace of the Leslie Lohman Museum says, “We’re not just about dick. We have a lot more to offer.”

As proof that gloryhole-esque viewing booths and a sex-pun riddled drink menu ensured it wasn’t all stodgy discourse, I’ll leave you with a final bonus tip. 

Bonus: If you don’t have a whip handy, uncooked bacon will suffice.

2 Comment

  • of course no one objected that the ‘festival’ was too academic. they all had their hands in their rain coat pockets.

  • Why didn’t they call it “Penis Noir” on the menu?
    Seems like a huge miss oppourtunity.